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How to motivate an unmotivated teen

So, what am I supposed to do? My teen does zilch. They have no motivation, no get up and go. Trying to get them to switch off their devices and do their homework is like pulling teeth every single day. They are driving me nuts.

Sound familiar? Here are a few tips on how to motivate an unmotivated teen.

Motivation is their problem (not yours)

Parents are constantly told at every stage of childhood that it is our job to support our children to fulfil their potential. So, when we see teens wasting their time and talents, or not doing as well as they could do (or not even trying), parents often panic and leap into action. We mistakenly believe that when teens aren’t stepping up to a task, it’s a sign that we aren’t doing our parenting job well – or that this is our problem to solve.

But really, this is their problem to solve. Teens need to discover their own motivation and learn to regulate their own behaviour in order to become successful young adults. And when we take on that task for them, we often actually get in the way of them learning to take responsibility for their own choices and for motivating themselves.

Criticising won’t help

Usually, when parents try to galvanise an unmotivated teen, we start off gentle and reasonable. We start by explaining to them how important it is to do well in their exams. When that doesn’t seem to make an impression, we remind them. Reminding turns into nagging, until we are well and truly frustrated. Often, our language gets increasingly critical in our desperation to get through to them. Maybe we start labelling them lazy and irresponsible (we know we shouldn’t, but we are just so frustrated). Then, before we know it, we are marching into their rooms to rip that console plug from its socket.

Criticising unmotivated teens doesn’t work. Not because they aren’t listening – actually, they are registering everything we say. When we label our teens as lazy or irresponsible (out of desperation, fear or frustration), they hear that loud and clear. They hear that they are failing to meet our expectations, that they are disappointing us, and that weighs heavily on them. But it doesn’t usually lead to positive actions.

Want more details on talking to teens without criticising? Watch our 10-minute video on Talking to teens about difficult topics.

Believe in them

Telling your unmotivated teen how smart they are and how much potential they have (if only they’d put down that phone and do some studying) might be your way of trying to build them up. But what you are really saying (and what your teen hears) is that they should be doing better, that they are not doing well enough, that they are failing to meet your benchmarks. There might be some truth in this, but for a teen who is already struggling to believe in themselves (or to succeed), it is more likely to make them feel ashamed rather than motivated.

Teens need us to believe in them here and now – not in some future or idealised version of them who is getting life right. So that they can believe in themselves too. And find their own motivation.

Don’t nag

Nagging doesn’t hold your unmotivated teen accountable in any way, and it leaves the problem firmly in your hands. It lets your teen off the hook. Nagging positions parents as the powerholders and driving force and sets up that oppositional dynamic that is so unhelpful when it comes to parenting teenagers: we push them, they push back at us.

If you are doing a lot of nagging, the truth is that you are assuming responsibility for your teenager’s choices. You are the one who is caring how long they are watching YouTube and telling them to switch it off (effectively allowing them to outsource their self-control).

You are the one who is worrying that they don’t do anything else and trying to motivate them towards other activities (so they don’t have to motivate themselves).

Nagging means you are working harder on your teen’s behalf than they are (and probably feeling intensely annoyed and unappreciated for your efforts). And if you are working harder to secure your teen’s success than they are, there is no opportunity for them to develop the motivation, self-control and self-belief needed to make their own future happen.

Hand over responsibility

Nagging sends the signal to our teens that we think they aren’t capable of managing a situation or of taking responsibility. By stepping in to take control, we signal I don’t think you can do this, you need me to do it for you. On the flipside, by stepping back and handing over control, we can send the signal: You’ve got this. I believe you can do this. And that gives them a chance to practice (and learn through experience).

Hold them accountable

To motivate an unmotivated teen, you have to step out of the way and hold them accountable for their actions. We need to let teens take control over their choices and allow them to learn from the consequences of those choices. These might be:

  • positive consequences (such as praise or feeling proud of themselves),
  • natural consequences (such as a school detention for being late, or a favourite t-shirt that can’t be worn because they haven’t washed it), or
  • structured consequences that we put in place to help nudge them in the right direction.

For these consequences to work, we need to step back and not jump in to rescue our teen from every negative outcome.

If the idea of letting your child face consequences in one area (eg schoolwork) freaks you out, start somewhere else (eg laundry). You might be surprised at how well your teenager rises to the challenge and takes up the slack (or, alternatively, it might take a lot longer than you imagined!).

I have had three teenage boys grow up in my house and the age at which they started doing their own laundry got younger with each one – not because of any difference in their motivation or competence but because I finally learned that the deciding factor wasn’t them, it was me and my willingness to stop doing it for them.

Remember, there is time

We used to call teens who were slow to mature late bloomers. Too, often, in our hyper-competitive school systems, they are now labelled under-achievers. Try not to get sucked in by this. Some teens take a little longer to grow into themselves and find their mojo than others, and that’s ok.

Not all teens develop on the same schedule. When we compare them and get sucked into competitive parenting, we put pressure on them (and us) to rush towards an imagined finishing line – as if they will be forever judged on what they were up to at 16 years old.

Don’t write them off. Your teen’s moment to shine will come.

In the meantime, the best way you can help motivate your unmotivated teen is to build their self-esteem, support them to develop self-regulation through accountability, and give them time and opportunities to find a path they actually want to follow.

You might also want to read:

If you are worried about your teenager’s mental or emotional wellbeing, please reach out to Young Minds or take a look at this resource list.

photo of teenager girl staring out of the widow looking bored, to illustrate article on how to motivate an unmotivated teen

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By Anita Cleare

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